Child Health Connections | Eastern North Carolina Now | Program provides high-quality, diverse training in maternal and child health

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Ronnie Woodward.

From left, Kelli Russell, Alice Richman, Miranda Gavin and Kristin Black participate in a hula hoop challenge as part of an event with ECU's Maternal and Child Health Scholars, Training and Enrichment Program. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

    East Carolina University students and professors used a couple of two-by-four wood pieces to connect to each other from platform to platform during a recent ropes course activity.

    The group eventually succeeded in its lighthearted challenge of flexibility, patience, creativity and connectors, but invaluable connections had been established by participants long before they converged at the ropes course at the ECU North Recreational Complex in October.

    The students and staff are part of the Maternal and Child Health Scholars, Training and Enrichment Program in the College of Health and Human Performance. The program, which aims to train a more diverse maternal and child health-related workforce, began earlier this year with a five-year, $774,639 Health Resources and Services Administration grant.

    "I was a freshman (last year) and was just looking at mentors in the public health field and reached out to (Dr. Alice Richman) to see if there was anything that would be cool for me and I told her a little bit about what I was interested in," sophomore Nepal native Simona Adhikari said. "She was my initial mentor and she reached out to me to apply for this program and said it was going to be great. That's how I kind of got introduced to it. I really like how ECU and HHP, in general, is very mentor driven. Even before our first seminar, we were able to meet a bunch of different mentors and faculty members within the college itself. That is already helping us build connections and foundations."

    For Ja'Cory Brunson, a sophomore from Goldsboro, being a participant has personal meaning because he spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit at Vidant Medical Center with infant jaundice. He is the only male among the 12 students in the first cohort of the program that is slated to grow to 48 undergraduate students from rural and diverse backgrounds.

    "Maternal and child health slips under the radar a lot," Brunson said. "Many people don't think it's a main focus, but there are a lot of disparities and things that need to be addressed within maternal and child health. Just to have the positive mentors to work with us and guide us along the way to hopefully fulfill our dreams feels pretty good. ... Bringing awareness to jaundice or women with preeclampsia, anything that is maternal and child health related, that kind of motivated me."

    Drs. Essie Torres and Richman in the Department of Health Education and Promotion are the principal investigators for the grant. Dr. Kristin Black is the project manager.

    Richman described ECU, one of six schools to receive federal funding, as a perfect fit. Others included the University of California, Berkeley, the University of South Carolina and UNC Greensboro.

    "Given the critical health needs of MCH populations in eastern North Carolina and ECU's location, mission and student composition, ECU is perfectly positioned to engage in the training and diversification of the future maternal and child health workforce," Richman said. "The training program will prepare students for a successful trajectory into the MCH workforce and will help ensure high-quality, culturally and linguistically competent care to MCH populations in North Carolina and beyond."

    The grant's purpose is to inspire the interest of rural, underrepresented racial and ethnic diverse undergraduate students in maternal and child health-related public health, help them explore and envision career paths and serve as a training program to enhance the diversity of the next generation of maternal and child health-related health professionals.

    The students in the first cohort are Adhikari, Brunson, Ashley Zuniga, Faith Bell, Jenny Harris, Lanazja Alexander, Leslie Osorio Pascual, Lindsay McCoy, Megan Long, Miranda Gavin, Natalia Figueroa-Bernal and Shakira Jones.

    "Dr. Torres and I are so excited to receive this award and more importantly for what it means for our students, programs, college, university and community," Richman said. "We couldn't do this alone, however. This is an interdisciplinary program involving faculty, students and community organizations across disciplines to enhance the diversity of next generation of MCH-related health professionals."

    This semester, the students have bonded through various meetings and seminars as they also navigate their academic workload. Seventy-five percent of the first cohort is composed of minority students, and 42% are first-generation college students.

    As they balance academics and college life, and formulate plans for their futures, learning and training in maternal and child health undoubtedly has had an impact.

    "Kids just make me happy," Brunson said. "To be able to put a smile on their face, even if it's just saying 'hi' or 'good morning' or 'I like your hair,' it's little stuff like that that really brightens their day. That is kind of what geared me toward maternal and child health."
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